(Etre et Avoir)
Directed by Nicolas Philibert. France. 2002.
Reviewed by Howard Schumann and Jaap Mees.
Filming almost 600 hours of the children's daily activities with a crew of four, Philibert allows us to re-experience the long forgotten frustrations of learning how to trace letters, express our feelings verbally, count until we run out of numbers, and get along with our classmates. Mr. Lopez has taught in the same school for twenty year and has a unique ability to simply be with and respect children for who they are and what they say. He is a model of patience and an example of how to listen without making moral judgments or instant evaluations. He says of the teaching profession, "It takes time and personal involvement and the children return that again and again." Most of the children come from families in low income houses or apartments where they haven't had the opportunity for a great education. The film does a great job of showing the parents back at their respective houses or apartments struggling to do their best to solve the mysteries of the child's homework. To Be and To Have is also filled with humour as in a sequence when two very young students are fighting a losing battle with a photocopier and when a student insists on using the word "pal" instead of "friend". Much time is spent observing a pre-schooler named Jojo with a very typical attention span. He is endearing but I would have liked a bit more exploration of Katherine who we find out at the end has a serious problem in communicating.
Lopez works closely with each child, showing
sensitivity in the way he handles problems as
when he asks two fighting students to imagine
the effect their behaviour has on others. Time
and again he mediates disputes by helping
children to communicate with each other as in
the scene where he assists two older boys,
Julien and Olivier, in understanding the reasons
they got into a fight. "You were just testing
each other, but then it degenerated, no?" he
asks. The film begins in December with footage
of snow falling on a herd of cows and continues
until the following Summer. By the end we have
come to know many of the students. When the
teacher announces he is going to retire in
another year, the emotion on his face when the
children plant kisses on his cheek as they say
goodbye for their vacation was felt throughout
the entire audience of 800 people. To Be and
To Have celebrates the dedication of
teachers whose unacknowledged labours make a
profound difference in the lives of our
children. A film of warmth and humanity, it is
the highest grossing French documentary of all
time. Job well done, Mr. Lopez and Mr. Phlibert.
To Be and To Have (Etre et Avoir)
Itís really encouraging for documentary makers to see docs like Buena Vista Social Club ( Wim Wenders/Ry Cooder), Bowling for Columbine (Michael Moore) and now the latest success story Etre et Avoir, by French documentarist Nicolas Philibert, doing very well in the cinema.
For Philibert it is even a bigger achievement, because he chooses to make a film about a simple daily subject: a one room school-class with children from 4-10 in the Auvergne in France, guided by their patient, even tempered and humane teacher Georges Lopez. Philibert follows the struggles and joys of children who are learning to read, wrestling with maths and trying to deal with each other. We follow the pupils like the cheeky boy Jojo, the over sensitive Olivier, whose father endured a serious operation and a quietly determined Asian girl. The daily life of the children and the kind teacher are intercut with exquisite shots of Auvergne all through the seasons. This gives the film not only a time frame, but also a poetic universality, a beautiful rhythm and breathing space.
Etre et Avoir won a couple of Awards, among them the Best European Documentary Film Award and was a big hit in France. In an interview in Sight and Sound, Philibert says: ď I make a film with my subjects, not about them.Ē Itís brilliant to see that gentle and subtle films are not always shouted down by over-hyped and loud films.
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